The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 9, No 2 (2005)

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Children and Bread in Time of War

Susan C. Griffith


Susan C. Griffith teaches children's literature at Central Michigan University. She currently serves on the Jane Addams Children's Book Award Committee.


Jane Addams Children's Book Award

In 1953, pacifist and activist members of the Jane Addams Peace Association, the educational affiliate of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, created the Jane Addams Children's Book Award to recognize children's books that that invite young readers to think deeply about peace, social justice, gender equity and world community. The award, presented annually since that time, honors children's books that encourage young readers to stretch their imaginations beyond the concerns of their individual and family lives so that, widely at home in the world, they can grapple with its problems courageously and nonviolently.

The Jane Addams Children's Book Award reflects the accomplishments of its namesake--a woman who struck at the roots of social injustice through astute, persistent, thoughtful action during the first decades of the twentieth century. "Jane Addams of Hull House and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom," as the self-chosen epitaph on her gravestone reads, worked tirelessly for reforms in child labor law, sanitation, housing conditions and work conditions for nearly four decades. Firmly grounded in the Chicago immigrant neighborhood surrounding Hull House, the settlement house she founded with Ellen Gates Starr in 1899, her vision went far beyond its boundaries. In 1915 she, along with women from all over the world, founded the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Later, in 1931, Addams was the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Guidelines for the Award and a complete list of winners and honor books can be found at http://www.janeaddamspeace.org/. Award winners and honor books are announced annually on April 28, the anniversary of the founding of WILPF. The Hull House Museum has a website which will connect to other information about Jane Addams and her life and work. That URL is http://www.uic.edu/jaddams/hull/hull_house.html.

 

Children and Bread in Time of War

Afghanistan. Two eleven year old girls--Parvana and Shauzia--meet in bombed-out Kabul's marketplace. It's 2000 and they are disguised as boys. Each works at whatever she can --Shauzia delivering tea to busy merchants, Parvana reading and writing letters for others. In the weeks ahead they work together digging up human bones for profit and selling cigarettes and candy from trays they work hard to purchase. War, bombs, and repression have thrust each from her home into the outside world, a world threatening to any with dissident political opinions and to all women for showing their faces or simply being in public. They are the sole breadwinners for their families.

Startled to see each other without long hair and in boys' clothing, Shauzia and Parvana quickly form an alliance. Marked by fear, determination, camaraderie and dreams of meeting atop the Eiffel Tower in twenty years, the girls' time together is short-lived but its effects are deep and far-reaching. With their friendship as foreground in its first novel, then backdrop in the following two, Deborah Ellis' Breadwinner Trilogy chronicles the effects of war that force these two down divergent paths from the marketplace in 2000 to separate refugee camps about a year later. First told from Parvana's viewpoint then Shauzia's, the trilogy makes vivid the physical and psychological burdens borne by children who, even with adults nearby, must take on responsibilities far beyond their years.

In 2004, the Jane Addams Children's Book Award jury honored Ellis' Breadwinner Trilogy with a special commendation as a body of work. The year before the jury awarded the second of the Ellis' trilogy, Parvana's Journey, the 2003 JACBA in the Books for Older Children category. Cited for excellence in the promotion of peace and social justice, the novels broaden understanding of cultures of the world, provide models of children who solve problems courageously and invite discussion of gender equity and the effects of war.

The Breadwinner Trilogy also embodies a connection between war and starvation, peace and bread that Jane Addams herself explored in Peace and Bread in Time of War. In this reflection on her pacifist struggles to alleviate the famine caused by World War I, Addams recounts her observations of refugees in Europe in the War's aftermath. After seeing " . . . nothing but dread and suffering, a reduction of the human condition to incessant preoccupation with mere survival (Elshtain 244)," she declares peace and bread have become "inseparably connected in my mind." (Addams xxii).

Ellis, who traveled throughout Afghanistan interviewing women refugees [1], places the struggle for food front and center in The Breadwinner Trilogy. She shows in a contemporary story what Addams saw over eighty years ago in Europe: children starving as a direct result of war. The need for food sparks the trilogy's premise and its critical incidents revolve around it. Throughout the trilogy, Ellis references food, showing how hunger or the fear of being hungry shapes behavior, circumstances and the outcome of events.

Parvana's and Shauzia's journeys of displacement are already underway as the trilogy opens in The Breadwinner (published in some markets as Parvana). Parvana's family has lost the oldest son to a land mine and their home to bombs. They move from place to ever more crowded place. Shauzia's circumstances mirror Parvana's. She says:

There's only my mother and me and my two little sisters left . . . My mother doesn't go out. She's sick all the time. We're living with my father's parents and one of his sisters. Everybody fights all the time. I'm lucky to be able to get away from them and go to work.
(99)

For her, Parvana and many, many, many others, shelter is temporary, food is scarce, and sanity threatened.

Parvana's mother receives an offer of marriage for her older sister through relatives in the north. With desperation and hope for the future, she decides to take her children there. Because she is passing for a boy and relatives may question this, Parvana is left behind in the capable hands of Mrs. Weera, a compatriot of Parvana's mother. All think they will be parted for only the summer. Parvana's mother and the other children do not return.

When Parvana's father is inexplicably released from prison, he decides that Parvana and he will walk north to locate the rest of the family. Mrs. Weera decides to join her sister at a refugee camp in Pakistan. And, Shauzia, desperate to have a life of her own and against all cultural mores, decides to leave her family to join a group of shepherds in the mountains.

Parvana's Journey, the second in the trilogy, is the story of refugee children adrift in the countryside. It opens with Parvana at her father's funeral. After weeks of walking alongside him to find the rest of their family, his health gives way, leaving Parvana to carry on alone. Firmly grounded in the vision of reunion with her family, she sets out headed toward an unknown destination. Along the way she takes on a family of her own for whom she becomes responsible. First, she finds baby Hassan in the ruins of a village, crying just a few feet from his own dead mother. She meets Asif, one-legged, beaten and dirty, in a cave where she seeks shelter. And, finally, across a field of land mines, Parvana finds little Leila living happily in well-provisioned squalor with her grandmother who is immobilized by fear and despair.

In each place, while there is food, Parvana imagines a home, describing her dream world in diary-like letters to Shauzia. The need for food and the prospect of hunger are never far away, though. The children act accordingly. When provisions scrounged from Hassan's ruined village run low, they prepare to leave the cave for the next leg of the journey. Parvana cooks up the only four cups of rice they have, because as Asif says, "What if there's no water where we're going?" (75) Intending to eat just a little bit and carry the rest with them, they eat until panic strikes: "It seemed like they had just started eating when Parvana noticed the pot was only half filled with rice." (76) Flinging her arm violently, she upends the pot in the dirt. "After a long terrible moment ." the children pick up the rice "grain by grain, and put it back in the pot." (77)

Hunger follows them as they walk with no clear direction through the countryside: "They walked for two days before the food ran out, and then they walked for two days more." (78) "Had it been a week since the chicken ran out?" (91) Food and the lack of it influence their moods and behavior: "Hassan wailed the first day after the rice was gone, but by the second day the wail had dwindled to a thin whine. (78) "They all felt better when they were eating. Hassan took an interest in things again, and Parvana wasn't nearly so grumpy." (90) "Parvana's brain, sluggish from hunger, was slow to respond" (103)

After a harrowing explosion in a mine field, the children stay with Leila in what Parvana calls Green Valley--the most elaborate and touching of her temporary homes. They live industriously, happily and dreamily. As winter sets in, the dream begins to fade. Asif tells Parvana "We're down to the last sack of flour . . .There's only one full can of cooking oil left, and one and a half sacks of rice." (139) Before the food runs out completely, the valley is bombed and the children are irrevocably displaced. With Grandmother killed, their shelter decimated and all food gone, Parvana and her refugee family set out once again.

On this longest and bleakest leg of the journey, "The food and water lasted them for a few days. Then it ran out. That was two days ago. It was longer for Hassan, because he couldn't chew raw rice." (150). Following a trickle of a stream, they drink water that makes them sick and eat leaves, grass and pages from a book left to Parvana by her father: "The book . . .didn't taste like anything, but it was something to chew on, and each child ate another page after they finished the first." (156) All the while they walk, the countryside is being bombed. They walk until they are " . . .just four more bodies in a long line of people moving forward only because there was nothing to go back to." (169). They walk until they arrive at a camp for Internally Displaced Persons.

Mud City (published in some markets as Shauzia), Shauzia's story and the trilogy's final novel, begins in the Widow's Compound of a refugee camp in Pakistan where Shauzia has been delivered by the shepherds. Shauzia is disgusted with dirty, noisy, crowded, humdrum camp life. She is also annoyed by the indomitable Mrs.Weera who is in charge of the compound. Mrs. Weera, perhaps the only person there who knows Shauzia has abandoned her family in Kabul, has taken her in. But Mrs. Weera's demands for responsible action hem Shauzia in at every juncture. Against all advice, Shauzia impetuously takes off for Peshawar, as a boy; traveling alone with her dog Jasper she is determined to make money for the trip to France that she and Parvana imagined.

In the city, Shauzia fends for Jasper and herself. She lives on the streets, first with only Jasper, then with a loose group of boys in a cemetery. One night she raids the trash bins of a restaurant with the boys:

She could not stuff food in her mouth fast enough. Chunks of mutton gristle, bits of ground-meat patties, potatoes slick with spiced oil--she shoveled it all into her mouth, eating with one hand while the other spread out the trash, searching for more food. When a cigarette butt got mixed up with a handful of rice and spinach, she separated it from the food with her teeth, spat it out and kept on eating. (66)

She cleans shops, sells trash-picked goods, begs, if necessary, and, as a regular money-maker, has Jasper perform tricks near a restaurant. Her purse is gaining weight when, outside the restaurant, a man offers her 100 roupees to come with him. She accepts the money then realizes she is being abducted. When she screams, the man accuses her of stealing--the 100 roupees in her hand is proof. She is arrested, all her money confiscated, and she is thrown in a jail cell stuffed with tens of unfortunate boys.

But a businessman from the United States has witnessed the entire incident. After bribing officials, he rescues the boy whose dog his own sons love to see performing tricks. Shauzia reveals her gender and is welcomed into her benefactor's opulent household. For the first time in years, she eats and sleeps regularly. Assured that sharing their food, clothing and shelter is what the family wishes to do, Shauzia hordes and shares food in ways not imagined by the insulated, comfortable family. In complete dismay, the father makes quick arrangements and whisks her back to the Widow's Compound. Lonely, resentful and dispirited, Shauzia faces all that she tried to escape.

The resolution of each of the girls' stories turns on food. In their respective camps, food is available but at a premium. They must wait in long lines for bread and flour; as often as not, they are turned away with nothing. Impatient as always, Shauzia stages what she thinks is a secret raid on the flour warehouse; her actions trip a food riot that lands her in the infirmary with a broken leg. Forced into inaction, she thinks and thinks and thinks and begins to understand her responsibility to others. In Parvana's camp, hundreds of pretty yellow packets drop from the air onto the camp. Standing outside watching with Asif and Leila, she hears the cry "It's food!" rise up from the crowd. The tragedy that follows from the ensuing chaos leaves Parvana grief-stricken and convincingly reunited with her mother and the family she seeks.

The conclusions of Parvana's Journey and Mud City reinforce the power of their telling details. Together they sharply and unforgettably create the lives of courageous children whose incessant preoccupation must be bread in the time of war. In a world where "[w]e have perforce become accustomed to . . . widespread war with its inevitable consequences . . ." (Addams xi), the Breadwinner Trilogy illuminates the struggle for food in time of war and makes clear the connection between peace and bread that Addams saw as inseparable.

Notes

1. See Ellis, Deborah. Women of the Afghan War. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000.

Works Cited

Addams, Jane. Peace and Bread in Time of War. Anniversary Edition. New York: King's Crown Press, [1922] 1945.

Ellis, Deborah. The Breadwinner (Parvana). Toronto: Groundwood Books/Douglas & McIntyre, 2000.

___________. Mud City (Shauzia). Toronto: Groundwood Books/Douglas & McIntyre, 2003.

___________. Parvana's Journey. Toronto: Groundwood Books/Douglas & McIntyre, 2002.

Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy: A Life. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

 

Susan C. Griffith


Volume 9, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, 2 April, 2005

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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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